Even before Breath of the Wild, Majora’s Mask shook up the Zelda Franchise
The Legend of Zelda Breath of the Wild has recently been released to widespread critical acclaim, garnering numerous perfect tens from various gaming publications.
Many have praised the game for its originality and divergence from the classic Zelda formula which some felt was becoming stale.
However, Breath of the Wild isn’t the first Zelda game to take significant risks with regards to changing up the series’ key elements.
Back in 2000, hot off the heels of the success of Ocarina of Time, Nintendo developed a swansong for the Nintendo 64 in the system’s waning days.
Possessing a much more somber tone than prior Zelda games and defying many of the series’ conventions, the Legend of Zelda Majora’s Mask quickly became a dark horse hit and served as a worthy follow up to Ocarina of Time.
Set in the parallel realm of Termina, Majora’s Mask opens with Link’s search for his former companion Navi, who departed at the conclusion of Ocarina of Time.
While conducting his search, he is ambushed by the Majora’s Mask wearing Skull Kid and is transformed into a deku scrub.
After a quick introductory segment wherein Link regains his human form, the main adventure begins as our hero seeks to stop the Skull Kid from destroying Termina by sending the moon on a deadly crash course with the earth.
At this point, the game introduces its primary hook, which sets itself apart from other iterations of the series; masks.
Upon returning to his original body, Link acquires the Deku’s mask which enables him to transform into a deku scrub and utilize its high flying, deku nut firing abilities.
This mechanic opens up a whole range of possibilities of movement and actions which Link cannot access in his default form.
Similarly, Link eventually gains the Goron’s mask, providing mighty punches and fast travel as a spiked ball of doom, and the Zora’s mask which bestows acrobatic moves and electrical barriers.
These masks don’t merely serve as gimmicks, but fundamentally guide the game’s design and flow, as each mask is paired with a corresponding region and dungeon where its abilities are integral to proceed.
While other Zelda games have a transformation mechanic (Twilight Princess’ wolf mode comes to mind,) Majora’s Mask utilizes it best as a primary aspect of the game which takes center stage both narratively and functionally.
Additionally, Majora’s Mask grants you twenty other masks with uses ranging from growing into a towering giant and learning sweet dance moves.
The masks also figure prominently in the games other major focus; side quests. Unlike other Zelda games, Majora’s mask only includes four dungeons which leaves room for normally ancillary tasks to comprise the bulk of the game.
Employing his handy Bomber’s Notebook, Link travels throughout the land righting wrongs wrought by the Skull Kid, earning heart pieces and masks as rewards.
While a lesser game’s side quests may amount to little more than glorified fetch quests, Majora’s mask manages to induce players to care about the denizens of Termina. This is where the game’s greatest strength comes into play.
Majora’s Mask features an emotional depth and evocativeness never before seen and never seen since in a Zelda Game (unless BOTW bucks the trend, I haven’t played yet, but I hope to soon).
Link isn’t just delivering item A to person B. He’s reuniting estranged couples, healing the souls of the undead, and helping a man come to terms with leaving his humble origins for a life of fame.
These are merely a few examples of the many brilliant moments of pure emotion on full display in the game. Forcing the players to care about the characters is an ingenious tactic which grants the moon’s impending fall and the threat of total annihilation a much greater urgency.
Ganondorf probably killed many innocents during his rise to power in Ocarina of Time but who can even remember the side characters’ names. Not so in Majora’s Mask which makes you feel the burden of saving a whole world full of three dimensional people.
The game demonstrates its emotional weight best in bleak contexts during the final hours before the moon’s fall.
In my personal favorite moment, the sword master who was previously boasting of cutting the moon from the sky can be found cowering in his back room grappling with the fear of death. The game offers no easy answers and portrays the very real issue of the inevitability of death in a stark fashion.
Similarly, the ranch owner Cremia gives her younger sister Romani her first taste of alcohol and asks that they sleep in the same bed, evoking an adult’s tender final moments with a naïve child who can’t comprehend her hopeless fate.
But these moments aren’t restricted to scenarios in which you fail to stop the moon’s fall. Upon beating the final boss, you witness the dawn of a new day punctuated by Anju and Kafei, the couple you reunite in the game’s longest side quest, finally getting married.
However, this joyous occasion is implicitly marred by the earlier rumors of Kafei’s rumored infidelity with Cremia.
Moreover, in one of the game’s most poignant scenes, the Deku butler weeps over his deceased son, whom you encounter at the game’s outset. Much like in real life, Majora’s mask doesn’t always presents a happy ending and instead opts to offer a more nuanced vision in which life goes on, for good and bad.
By introducing radical new gameplay mechanics and a greater emphasis on a world full of emotionally rich characters, Majora’s Mask succeeded in taking the Zelda franchise on a slight (bizarre) detour.
(Seriously, I didn’t mention it earlier, but there’s a disembodied hand seeking toilet paper…enough said).
Way back before Breath of the Wild, Majora’s Mask’s development team showed that you don’t need Ganon and Princess Zelda to make a magnificent Zelda game.